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Estimating the Undocumented Population and Visa Overstays

A recent study published by the Congressional Research Service finds that there has been a sharp drop in the number of unauthorized immigrants arriving in the US annually over the past decade. While it’s quite difficult to measure the number of undocumented immigrants in the country, various government agencies have been analyzing broader population trends since the 1980s to estimate the number of people entering without inspection and those who have overstayed their visas. Robert Warren, a former demographer for the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) pioneered this methodology by examining US census data and federal administrative data. The Pew Center uses a similar methodology in their research on immigration. Over the years, these studies found that a significant portion of unauthorized immigrants had entered the country with visas but had overstayed them. For example, in 1996 it was estimated that 41% of the undocumented population had overstayed a visa while in 200 that percentage was 33%. In 2006, the Pew center estimated that 33% to 50% of the undocumented population had overstayed a visa.

However, recent findings from the aforementioned Robert Warren conclude that the number of unauthorized immigrants overstaying their visas has declined dramatically. From 2000 to 2009, Warren claims “total nonimmigrant overstays to the United States dropped from 705,000 to 190,000, or about 73%, over the decade”. Warren also concluded that those entering the country without inspection also dropped significantly.

So, why does this all matter? The rhetoric surrounding immigration often gets very heated and can at times seem detached from reality. Depending on who you listen to, what you read, or what shows you watch, it may seem like there is a non-stop flood of immigrants pouring over the border taking American jobs. This study contradicts that notion and attempts to infuse the debate with facts and objectivity, not just perceptions and opinions. The data and methodology may not be perfect but it’s measurable, objective, and quantifiable. And on an issue like immigration, an issue that’s often controversial and divisive, that’s incredibly important.

Read the full Congressional report here.